What we learned from the Vikings' 34-17 win over the Buccaneers
1. Hey, Case Keenum has value!
Astute readers will understand (mostly from seeing my name in the byline) that this post’s title is largely tongue-in-cheek; we’re not going to be casting Keenum in the Brett Favre mold anytime soon. HOWEVER, what Case Keenum did Sunday was remarkable. 25/33, 369 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions would be a blazing stat line from Sam Bradford, and is all the more impressive coming from the backup who struggled mightily at Pittsburgh last week.
The extraordinary part of Keenum’s performance, and the reason behind the sheepish yet not totally inaccurate gunslinger designation, was they way he threw downfield. Keenum aired it out early and often, starting with a pretty long ball down the sideline to Adam Thielen on the Vikings’ first drive and continuing for most of the game. The Vikings’ quarterback posted a colossal 11.18 passing yards per attempt, light years better than both his career average (6.6) and the 2016 NFL average (7.16ish). For reference, the record for yards per pass attempt over the balance of a season is 10.9, set by Sid Luckman in 1943. So yeah, Case was feeling it against the Bucs.
One can identify a multitude of reasons for Keenum’s quick turnaround — the opponent, the home game, the full week of preparation as a starter — but what he proved Sunday is that he has value as a backup and a spot starter. We of course can’t expect this (or, realistically, anything close to it) every week from Case, but a lot of us in Vikings land were pretty nervous about the quarterback situation after the egg he laid in Pittsburgh. This performance should give us confidence that, even if Bradford is out for an extended period, Keenum can do enough to help the team win any given week. Or, in this instance, do basically everything.
2. Rumors of the offensive line’s demise have been exaggerated.
It has become customary to overreact about the blocking (or lack thereof) after each game. So far this season, it’s gone like this:
Game 1: Awesome, much better. Is the O-line fixed?
Game 2: Terrible, what happened? Clearly it only looked okay against the Saints and can’t withstand an above-average pass rush. Why did they cut Boone?
Game 3: Like we said, the offensive line is fixed.
For what it’s worth, that’s 2-1, and while this snap reaction will certainly be replaced with another, different one a week from now, the offensive line has been more good than bad to start 2017, especially when you consider how much last season lowered the bar. The opponent matters, yes, but Week 3 was the best yet for the hams up front, as they kept Keenum clean most of the day and showed real, sustained push in the run game (a development I find more than a little exciting). Mike Zimmer said he thought they were fantastic, and it’s hard to disagree.
3. The defense has teeth.
I had been thinking for the last week the Vikings’ best chance to beat the Buccaneers was to get to Jameis Winston early and throw him off balance. Now, I wasn’t expecting Keenum to play like he was back in his Houston Cougars days, and that was a bigger reason for the win than anything else. But the defense delivered just what the doctor ordered, forcing the Bucs quarterback into three ugly interceptions (hey, turnovers!) and smothering the run game from the beginning. Tampa Bay finished with 26 rushing yards on 9 attempts. Nine attempts. Nine. The game flow had something to do with it, but that’s an all-out abandonment of the run, and a good sign the defense is doing something right.
Again, I’ve been beating this drum for a while, but I believe the fate of the 2017 Vikings hinges largely on the defense. They have the talent and the coach to be historically good, and if they clear that bar, the Minnesota will earn a playoff spot with the opportunity to do postseason damage. If the defense is just solid, the team’s potential gets capped far short of that. Sunday they were much more than solid.
4. Xavier Rhodes: legitimate shutdown corner.
Okay, we might have known this already, but Rhodes just keeps proving he’s one of the best to play the position. In three weeks, Xavier Rhodes has been tasked with trailing three top-ten NFL receivers in Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, and now Mike Evans, and he has held each well below their usual production. Every week, it seems, Pro Football Focus is posting an infographic illustrating how Rhodes played shutdown football.
Xavier Rhodes didn't allow much through the air today pic.twitter.com/ot7KYizFsd
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 24, 2017
(Then they go on to grade him as the 71st-best corner in the league, but that’s another conversation altogether.)
Rhodes has developed into an elite NFL corner, and one of a few players who can handle the unique challenge of shadowing and neutralizing the opposing team’s top pass-catchers on a weekly basis. He also has developed a charming ability to induce tantrums from Pro Bowl wide receivers.
Rhodes closed. pic.twitter.com/9W7mNLITsU
— Barry Coates (@BarryCoates13) September 24, 2017
5. Stefon Diggs is the real deal.
Yeah, we probably knew this one too. But if Diggs can stay healthy, he’ll be vaulting into that top-ten category himself before long. I’ll leave you with this gem.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) September 24, 2017